Presidential debate: Hispanics get little outreach

DENVER – Neither President Barack Obama nor Republican nominee Mitt Romney did anything to reach out specifically to Hispanic voters in their first debate Wednesday night, several experts said.

“Frankly, I didn’t see one moment of the entire debate that had anything for Hispanic voters that wasn’t a general policy question,” said Gary Segura, a political scientist at Stanford University and one of the principals in Latino Decisions, a political research company.

And even on those general policy discussions, neither candidate was able to frame an answer that resonated with a Hispanic audience, Richard Pineda, a communications professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“I think that both candidates are still not doing enough to frame the concerns of Hispanics in the United States as it relates to the economy; this is somewhat depressing given the significance of Hispanics making strides to move toward the middle class – even if only aspirationally,” Pineda said.

Mark Lopez, the associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said the candidates focused more specifically to Hispanics in Univision forums last month. In Wednesday’s debate, the focus was to a broader audience.

“They addressed issues that the general U.S. public is concerned about. Of course, some of those issues are important to Latinos as well, things like health care, education and jobs. But the focus seems to be more on the general U.S. population rather than Latinos,” Lopez said.

The Hispanic vote could be crucial in battleground states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada, where Hispanics make up more than 10 percent of registered voters. The also make up a small but growing part of the electorate in Virginia and North Carolina, two other battleground states.

The Romney campaign this summer set a goal of winning 38 percent of the Hispanic vote, which is well above the 31 percent John McCain won in 2008 and approaching the 40 percent threshold George W. Bush reached in his 2004 re-election bid.

However, two polls this week – for Impremedia/Latino Decisions and NBC/Wall Street Journal – showed Romney with support of only 21 percent of Hispanic voters.
Spokesmen and surrogates for the two campaigns said their candidates were able to connect with Hispanic voters in the debate.

Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, said he believed the president’s positions on economics and education Wednesday night would be well-received by Hispanic voters.

“On education, on jobs, those issues that Latino voters care very deeply about, the president laid out a very clear plan. Governor Romney struggled to have a plan on education and that’s a very big issue in this election,” Messina said.

But Rosario Marin, a former treasurer of the United States under George W. Bush, said Romney’s focus on jobs would be especially meaningful for Hispanics. She said Hispanics have a higher unemployment rate than the nation as a whole, and almost half of Hispanic children live in poverty.

“To the degree that Governor Romney’s emphasis on jobs is important, it is even more important to the Hispanic community. So we’re very, very pleased. I am thrilled at his performance,” she said. “I think this changes the discussion.”

Pineda and Segura said it will be difficult for Romney to narrow Obama’s advantage with Hispanics before Nov. 6.

“Romney is having a hard time pivoting on Hispanic issues, because he cannot distinguish how his policies in general might be different or might be perceived differently by Hispanics in the U.S.,” Pineda said. “The inability to ‘thread the needle’ so to speak means that Romney can try to sell messages of opportunity and equity to Hispanics, but seemingly cannot articulate how his proposed policies would be uniquely beneficial to Hispanics.”